The Dark Ages
When the Apostle Paul preached at Ephesus, his ministry continued there for two years and “all that inhabited Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19: 10). Not only that, but “with might the word of the Lord increased and prevailed” (see v20). And yet, at the close of the apostle’s ministry, with the time of his departure at hand, he laments that “all who [are] in Asia … have turned away from me” (2 Tim. 1: 15). How could this be? How could there be such a rapid turning away? We are often told that we must go back to the first three centuries to find the purity of the faith and worship of the primitive church, but it is clear from this comparison of Acts and 2 Timothy that to use even the first century as our standard is a grave mistake. Indeed, it is very evident that we cannot even rely on what was happening in the apostle’s own lifetime!
The turning away from Paul could hardly have been merely personal but must have included his teaching as well. Thus in 2 Tim. 2: 18 he speaks of those who “as to the truth have gone astray”, while in chapter three he refers to those who “withstand the truth” (v8), and again in the fourth chapter he speaks of who “turn away their ear from the truth, and will have turned aside to fables” (v4). To turn away from Paul was thus to turn away from Pauline doctrine.
It was this abandonment of the truth as taught by the Holy Spirit through Paul that led necessarily to the loss of the teaching concerning the mystery—the truth concerning the one body of Christ. The effect of this was to put everything wrong ecclesiastically: the Head in heaven was replaced by a head on earth, the uniting power of the Spirit replaced by political and fleshly amalgamation, and instead of recognising the one body, men set about making their own organisations composed of both real and unreal professors.
Also lost was the truth of the Lord’s promised return from heaven to catch up the living saints and to raise the dead in Christ. Other hopes (or rather fears) came in their place, namely death and judgment. Justification by faith being lost as well, the future was something to be dreaded, instead of looked for in all the confidence that comes from the Christian’s perfect standing in Christ. The way was now open for the full tide of error to come in like a flood, with all the corruption and superstition which was eventually headed up in what have become commonly known as the Dark Ages.
Everyone is familiar with the term, and with the fact. But what were the Dark Ages? How did they come about? They were not brought on suddenly by some untoward event. There must have been some cause, something that made such ages possible. Nor is the darkness wholly gone, for Roman Catholicism strenuously resisted the light of The Reformation, while the Eastern Orthodox churches never experienced a significant working of that nature at all. And what was The Reformation itself but the beginning of a recovery of the great Pauline doctrines that began to be lost in the apostle’s lifetime—truths that are set out in detail in Paul’s so–called Church Epistles?
Justification by grace through faith was the first great truth to which a remnant in the church was recovered—the truth over which the great battle of sixteenth century was fought and won. However, while Protestantism began well, it did not go on as it should have done. As the Lord said prophetically, “I have not found thy works complete before my God” (Rev. 3: 2). Not until the nineteenth century did the Lord’s return from heaven begin to be widely taught again as the blessed hope of His Church. The last of the three truths to be recover was what is taught in Ephesians—the truth of the mystery. As it was the first to go, so, it seems, was it the last to be recovered.
We are now in the twenty–first century, and the question that needs to be asked is ‘Where do the Lord’s people today stand in relation to these great truths?’—and, more particularly, ‘Where do you and I stand?’ What is gained can just as easily be lost, and it is to be feared that the process of spiritual regression to the Dark Ages (at least in the Western world) is already well under way. We ought not to be surprised at this, for the Scriptures indicate that the power that held sway in the Dark Ages of past history, will rise to prominence again at the end of the age (see Rev. 17: 18). The increasing tendency in the professing church to exchange distinctive Christian doctrine for a vague mysticism is surely preparation for this. Thousands of those who profess to be Christians know little or nothing of the Church Epistles. The four Gospels and the Sermon on the Mount are taken as the essence of Christianity, instead of the Epistles specially addressed to assemblies. Hence the great ignorance of Christians generally as to all that God has made Christ to be to His People, and all that He has made them to be in Him.
Some may doubt that we are heading for another Dark Ages. They fondly imagine that, at least in their little circle, there is a “little power” and that they have “kept my word” (Rev. 3: 8). Thank God if it is so, but it is to be feared that there is an eroding tide that many seem oblivious to. Take the truth of the mystery. The ablest exponents of this doctrine are now a shattered force, divided and scattered in obvious contradiction of the great truth of the one body. Where has been the “holding fast the head” (Col. 2: 19) in all this? For direction, many simply follow what others do rather than seeking guidance from above, while their concept of love “towards all the saints” (Eph. 1: 15) appears constrained by the limits of the narrow circle in which they walk, where a similar ecclesiastical history seems to be the glue that holds all together. Lip–service is thus paid to the doctrine of the mystery, but the practical outworking is becoming ever more detached from the teaching that supposedly lies behind it. What attracted persons to such gatherings in the first place was not only the doctrine taught, but the practical outworking of that doctrine among the saints. Unless that spiritual reality is regained, it will not be long before the truth ends up existing only on bookshelves.
The same spiritual downgrade is evident in relation to the truth of the Lord’s return. It is clear that whereas the first modern exponents of this doctrine were truly awaiting God’s Son from the heavens (see 1 Thess. 1: 10), their spiritual children soon became mere students of prophetic truth, and (morally speaking) “sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play” (1 Cor. 10: 7). Thus unlike our forefathers, we are worldly, and we are worldly because we are idolatrous, for the essence of idolatry is the pleasure–seeking spirit that marks the world in which we live—the gratification of self. It should be no great surprise if gospel work in the West seemingly produces so few converts when most Western Christians live like those around them—in contrast to the great father of the faithful (see Rom. 4: 16) who “sojourned as a stranger in the land of promise as a foreign country … for he waited for the city which has foundations” (Heb. 11: 9, 10).
Is the Gospel itself also being lost? One wonders. Granted there is much gospel preaching and general evangelical activity (which we need to pray earnestly for), but there appears to be much less knowledge regarding Gospel doctrine than there was. Many of us appear to be not far in advance of Apollos who needed to have the way of God unfolded to him “more exactly” (Acts 18: 26). How much ministry do we hear on the blessed truths contained in the epistles to the Romans and Galatians? Very little. Nor is plucking out a verse or two here and there to discourse on the same as a comprehensive exposition of the doctrine in its context. Is it any wonder that so many are ill–established in the truth that they purport to believe, and are susceptible to being tossed and carried about by every false teaching that comes along? We need not only to believe the Gospel but to be established in it as well.
In the light of all this, it would be easy to wring our hands and say ‘All is lost!’—but that would not be the path of faith. The Word of God has anticipated that “in [the] last days difficult times shall be there” (2 Tim. 3: 1) and the man of God will thus turn to that same Word for help and guidance as to how to proceed in such days. Paul could say of Timothy that he had been “thoroughly acquainted with my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith ...” (2 Tim. 3: 10, my emphasis), and that he was to abide in the things which he had learned from him (see v14). Fidelity to the distinctive truths of Christianity is thus the only antidote to the increasing darkness in Christendom. May you and I be marked out, like Timothy, as men and women of God in an increasingly difficult day!